Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The world's oldest form of spirituality

Modern shamans are still revered among indigenous people the world over -- from Mongolia to Scandinavia, Alaska to Tibet.

Was the Buddha a Shaman?
Wisdom Quarterly
The Buddha rejected the ultimate authority of the Vedas, ritual priestcraft, and Brahmanism. He returned to the oldest form of spirituality, shamanism (a shramana Dharma). By rejecting the dominant brahmin priest mediated temple-religion (Brahmanism) of his day, he promoted a wandering mendicancy. There were other teachers (most notably Mahavira, the founder of Jainism) who, like Christ was later inspired to do, went against the stream of religious institution.

The Buddha did not invent shamanism but may have been the first to establish an orderly monasticism open to the public, inextricably linked to the community. Later Christian forms derived from Buddhism, as well as certain Mahayana traditions (like some Japanese and Korean Zen groups) went against this interdependence with the community towards an isolationism the Buddha warned against in the Vinaya. Shamanism apparently is much older than anyone imagines. In 2008 a very telling grave site was discovered:

Was the Buddha a shaman? Perhaps not in the way we think of the word. He was a shraman, which informed our understanding of the word. He was constantly in contact with unseen beings and worlds and taught how beings came to be reborn there. He often referenced those unseen: “In the world with its devas, maras, and brahmas, in this generation [humankind] with its shramans [recluses] and brahmins [priests and spiritually noble individuals], devas and humans, whatever is seen, heard, sensed and cognized, attained, searched into, pondered over by the mind -- all that is fully understood by the Tathagata [the Buddha]. That is why he is called the Tathagata” (AN: 54).

In most places for most of history, shamans and "medicine men" have been women and some special men. People are usually selected as children for being somewhat "touched" (odd, wyrd, queer, sensitive, special, psychic, or on a spiritual quest for meaning). The Buddha was the first founder of a world religion to admit women. (Mahavira had done so, although Jainism is hardly known outside of India, and nuns have come to dominate that coexisting shraman tradition).

Tools of the trade. Artist's drawing of a possible shaman burial, illustration drawn to scale, found near the Sea of Galilee (P. Groszman).

Ancient Grave May Have Belonged to Shaman
Before there were priests or doctors, people seeking solace or treatment for an illness often called in a shaman, an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Archaeologists working in Israel now claim that a 12,000-year-old grave of a woman buried with various animal and human body parts is that of an early shaman. If true, it could mean that shamanism arose during a critical period in human cultural evolution.

Although largely supplanted by organized religion, shamanism is still widespread in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For example, many Eskimo groups around the Arctic Circle practice shamanism. The roots of shamanism reach back at least to the ancient Greeks and possibly even to prehistoric times. Many archaeologists assume that shamanism preceded organized religion, and some see depictions of shamans in cave art from 15,000 years ago or earlier--although that interpretation is controversial.

But recent excavations at Hilazon Tachtit, a cave west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, may provide new support for prehistoric shamanism. Hilazon Tachtit was occupied by the Natufians, a people who inhabited the Near East between about 15,000 and 11,500 years ago. Most archaeologists see Natufian culture as a transition between hunting and gathering and the sedentary lifestyles of early farmers. More>>

No comments: